If the name Regina Spektor sounds vaguely familiar, maybe it's because you caught her opening for the Strokes during the first leg of their Room on Fire tour last year. Or perhaps you heard her swapping verses with Strokes singer Julian Casablancas on "Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men," the B-side to the group's "Reptilia" single. Chances are good that those are the only places you've heard her, because until last week, her new album had been sitting on a shelf for more than a year.
Spektor's third album, Soviet Kitsch, was recorded in New York and London during December 2002. And while she spent 2003 touring and being courted by labels, the record spent the year gathering dust.
"My album was just sitting there," Spektor said. "I'd make copies and sell them at shows, just to get it out in some form. I'd feel like crap, because some sweet person would come up to me after a show and ask, 'Where can I get your CD?' And I'd say 'Nowhere.' "
Well, now the wait is over ... sort of. Spektor's label, Sire Records, released the album digitally — via sites like the iTunes Music Store and Napster — last week, well in advance of the CD's official in-store release in February 2005. It's similar to the strategy Warner Bros. (which owns Sire) used when it released the Secret Machines' Now Here Is Nowhere album for free on the Internet earlier this year. Generating sales isn't as important as generating buzz.
"I'm disappointed, but I understand why they're doing it," Spektor said. "People who want it can get it now, and the company won't do a half-assed job of promoting it when the album comes out in stores. But if it were up to me, I'd love for it to be in stores tomorrow."
You can't blame Spektor for feeling impatient: She's been waiting for this her whole life. Born in Moscow, she began playing piano as a young girl. When she was 9, she moved with her family to the Bronx. Her parents couldn't afford a piano, let alone lessons, but professors at the Manhattan School of Music were so taken by Spektor's talent that they taught her for free. When she was 16, she began trying to play open-mic nights at New York's Sidewalk Café but had little success.
"They made you pull numbers, and I got, like, number 747, and I didn't get to perform," Spektor said. "I never got to play until one time I called the Café and totally lied to them. I said 'Uh, I have a show there tonight, and I forgot when it was.' But they believed me, so everyone in my family came out to see me play. The owners of the Café began to wonder where the influx of all these Russian people was coming from."
Her Russian cheering section wasn't the only thing that set Spektor apart from other performers at the Sidewalk. While everyone else was strumming folk tunes, she was writing jaunty piano pieces and delivering them in her own peculiarly contorted, singsong style. Part Björk, part Billie Holiday, it's a style that got Spektor noticed by the Strokes. ("I had no idea who they were," she laughs. "But I'm so out of the loop I just found out about David Bowie.") She released two albums on her own, 2001's 11:11 and 2002's Songs, and she's perfected her style on Soviet Kitsch.
"English was my second language, so words became a second language," Spektor said. "My music has a life of its own. Being an immigrant, being Jewish, listening to classical music as a kid; it all has an impact on what comes out of my mouth."
On songs like "Ode to Divorce" and "Chemo Limo" Spektor flits between whispers, shouts and something resembling beatboxing. It's a vocal schizophrenia that's alive on many of Kitsch's tracks, whether it's Spektor ranting like a bratty 8-year-old on "Your Honor" or sounding downright world-weary on the album's closer, "Somedays."
"I come up with a lot of characters, I create little worlds. It's like writing fiction," Spektor said. "But my songs are always an extreme version of myself. I can take chances I wouldn't take in real life. If I can't do something, but I can write a song about it, maybe someone else will hear my song and they'll be able to do it."